If you’re a Doctor Who fan, then you’re probably aware that Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa has recently been confirmed as the next incarnation of everyone’s favorite time-traveling alien, set to take over from incumbent Jodie Whittaker sometime this Fall.
As any Who fan will tell you, this is far from the first time it’s happened. In fact, it’s about the Fourteenth (sort of – it’s complicated). Whenever the Doctor is about to die, their fantastical Time Lord biology allows them to renew every single cell in their body in a process called regeneration, saving their life and (more importantly) replacing them with a brand-new actor. Not all regenerations are created equal, though. Sometimes, the Doctor goes out with a bang – but it’s fair to say that, occasionally, it’s with more of a whimper instead.
6) “The End of Time”
Few fans would deny that Russell T Davies is the best showrunner in Doctor Who history; as this story was the final episode of his era – at least till his return was confirmed for the new series in 2023 – it wasn’t hard for audiences to forgive or even embrace a few of its extravagances, like the Doctor’s ten-minute- long farewell tour, revisiting almost every companion he’d ever had since the show rebooted in 2005. Some scenes are fantastic (mainly those featuring fan-favorite companion Wilfred Mott), and the episode sees the Doctor face off against one of his most dangerous. and iconic enemies, the Master (John Simm).
Nevertheless, The End of Time is severely let down by the fact that so much of the episode seems intent on turning the audience against the incoming Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), with Ten (David Tennant) devoting a good couple of scenes to whinging bitterly about this inconsiderate jerk who’s next in line to carry the show forward after he’s gone (“Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead,” he says regarding regeneration. Good luck, Matt!) On top of this, the episode has a hard time staying on the enjoyable side of camp; you might think that the presence of the Time Lords, with their long, flowing robes and big, shiny collars, would add a sprinkling of fun to proceedings. Nope. Instead, The End of Time is a rather tiresome lesson on the diminishing returns of posh, angry villains and endless dramatic shouting.
5) “The Time of the Doctor”
The first act of “The Time of the Doctor” kicks off rather well; it’s light and funny, involving a flirtatious old flame of the Doctor’s and space-church where nudity is mandatory (made family-friendly by virtue of holographic clothes). It’s a good-natured romp that sets up a darker second half with the Doctor bound to a small town on a backwater planet where he must remain for hundreds of years, protecting it from alien attackers.
Unfortunately, the story runs out of juice long before the episode ends. As the stakes keep getting raised, it’s revealed that the Doctor doesn’t have any regenerations left – there’s a hard limit of 12 – and he’s accepted that there’s nothing he can do to prevent this small town he’s grown to love from being swamped by baddies. the moment he dies, permanently, of old age – a point which is swiftly approaching. And if you’re wondering how the Doctor plans to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in these incredibly bleak circumstances, do not worry – the writers, who wrote themselves into a corner, ended up giving us one of the most scrambled, nonsensical regeneration scenes in Who history (apparently, the Doctor can now regenerate with sufficient force to blast several alien war fleets clean out of the sky. Isn’t that lucky?) The remainder of the episode toys the line between sentimental and saccharine, although Peter Capaldi‘s abrupt appearance as the wild Twelfth Doctor does well to inject a bolt of excitement back into proceedings.
4) “The Day of the Doctor”
The Day of the Doctor sees incumbent Doctor No. Eleven (Matt Smith) team up with his former Tenth-self (David Tennant) to confront another past incarnation, who until now had been hidden away from companions and audiences alike; the grizzled War Doctor (John Hurt), who fits just between his Eighth and Ninth incarnation, and was the iteration of the Doctor who fought in the apocalyptic Time War. The episode uses the War Doctor to mock the modern show’s quirks affectionately. It also includes a satisfyingly weighty twist with the return of Gallifrey – the Doctor’s home planet he had previously thought destroyed.
Unfortunately, though, it suffers from the unique circumstance of being a good episode on its own terms, but just not up to par for its purpose of celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary. The episode is basically about the Doctor moving on from his Time-War-trauma – for which the War Doctor is a metaphor – and kicks off his optimistic hunt for Gallifrey and his people. And this is all well and good. But it made The Day of the Doctor a celebration of the past eight years of the show’s life, not 50 – something that fans, noting the special’s absence of bonafide classic Doctors, were quick to point out. The War Doctor’s realization that he has every right to call himself “The Doctor” is rather touching, and his regeneration can be seen as his character arc being neatly drawn to a well-deserved close. But the episode itself just had a few too many shortcomings to find itself any higher up on this list.
3) “Twice Upon a Time”
This regeneration episode gives us a double whammy, featuring not just Twelve (Peter Capaldi) on the brink of transforming into Thirteen but also a revisitation of the First Doctor’s (David Bradley) regeneration – the very first in the show’s history. Both meet by chance at the South Pole, and both are reluctant actually to go through with their respective deaths and re-births; Twelve is thus tasked with changing his predecessor’s mind, or else the past 50 years of British television will be wiped from existence.
What “Twice Upon a Time”gives us is the latest point in the show meeting the earliest. One’s era was never as conservative as this special makes it out to be. Still, there is plenty of good-natured fun poked at the ways the show had changed in the past half-century, which in many ways makes the episode a better 50th anniversary than the 50th anniversary was. In 1963, Doctor Who was conceived as being an edutainment show featuring the Doctor as a crotchety old man who wasn’t really even the main character (the focus was on his human companions) – a far cry from the fiery, God-like traverser of time and space who leaves death and pain in his wake that the character had become by 2017. The clash of these two very different modes of the same person is an excellent source of comedy. The plot isn’t wildly exciting, and the stakes never feel particularly high, but the bickering between Twelve and One is pretty much enough to make up for it.
2) “The Night of the Doctor”
In a move that shocked us all, “The Night of the Doctor” saw Paul McGann reprise his role as the Eighth Doctor – something he had not done on-screen since acting in the Doctor Who movie way back in 1996. When the show was revived in 2005, showrunner Russell T Davies briefly considered showing McGann’s Doctor regenerate onscreen into Ninth Doctor. Christopher Eccleston but ultimately decided against it, thinking new viewers would find it too confusing. Therefore, Eight’s regeneration was lost to the realms of speculation and dedicated fan fiction; as such, it was a real treat for audiences to finally see how it actually happened.
Although he’s on-screen for barely eight minutes, McGann’s latter-day Eight has all the hallmarks of a fantastic Doctor – he’s dashing, compassionate, and heroic, facing down danger and pomposity with irresistible cheek and irreverence. The Night of the Doctor‘s plot – that Eight must abandon his caring “Doctor” persona by choosing to regenerate into a warrior and help end the Time War – makes for a great piece of drama that McGann delivers with the passion of a man who’s been playing the Doctor on -screen for decades, not just minutes. And if that wasn’t enough, Eight ended up regenerating into a secret, “hidden” Doctor that audiences had never even seen before – the perfect canon-breaking surprise for the upcoming 50th-anniversary special.
1) “Bad Wolf” / “The Parting of the Ways”
If Russell T Davies was Doctor Who’s greatest showrunner, then Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways was undoubtedly his finest hour (or, strictly speaking, finest hour and a half – they’re two episodes of 45 minutes each – but we’re hardly complaining). Set in the year 200,100, this story sees the Doctor and his friends kidnapped by a sinister hidden force and implanted into futuristic versions of contemporary gameshows where the price of losing is death. And despite how that sounds, there’s nothing cheesy or goofy about this setup (alright, maybe a bit), which unfolds into a great commentary on how malicious actors can use media to manipulate public opinion. The Daleks – for this is who the big baddies ultimately turn out to be – are twisted and terrifying, while the mysterious Controller (Martha Cope) – whispering sinister prophecies from where she lies paralyzed in the center of her spider’s web of medical tubing – is genuinely chilling, and pretty much as close as you can get to body horror while still keeping things PG-13.
But the centerpiece of any regeneration episode is how well it concludes the Doctor’s character arc, and “The Parting of the Ways” outdoes all its competitors by lightyears. After a season spent establishing Nine as a tortured war veteran and the Doctor’s angriest, most cynical incarnation so far, he realizes that the only way to destroy the Daleks will also wipe out all life on Earth. Rather than re-tread the path that first led to his misery, he chooses pacifism and can regenerate in satisfaction and peace. “What are you? Coward or killer? ” “Coward, any day.” It’s one hell of a mission statement to round off Doctor Who‘s greatest regeneration story.
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